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Catastrophic changes

As a changeworker, the issue of catastrophes – intensive, irreversible (or neigh-irreversible) changes is of great interest to me. Obviously, we’re dealing with the systems theory meaning of catastrophe here, so devoid of its usual negative connotations. Catastrophes in systems can be positive changes. Like, let’s say, an addict of several years suddenly, finally and effectively quitting their habit.

Real-life catastrophic changes are quite rare in therapeutic or coaching settings. In fact, they are extremely rare in real life in general, save for brain damage and similar causes. Phineas Gage is of course recalled ad nauseum in this, possibly due to the drama involved in his situation. (While I know that, of course, his specific injury and its effects have been replicated numerous times in war veterans and the like, just once I’d like to read an account of a different person with similar changes.) Oliver Sacks recalls some catastrophic changes as a result of L-DOPA  treatments in parkinsonian patients. On a non-organic level the best known cases of such catastrophes are probably connected to the jerusalem syndrome. (Or perhaps, semi-non organic, as there is perhaps some combination of heat damage and cultural significance there. I also like to play around with the concept of, perhaps, some localized unusual magnetic fields, which might have psychoactive influences.) And obviously, there have been catastrophic changes caused by strongly traumatic events, both beneficial catastrophes, and very harmful ones. Near-death situations, bereavement, trauma, these can all lead to catastrophic changes in appropriate conditions.

It is less common, but still possible, for catastrophes to occur without such intense stimuli. In some cases these would occur through therapy, in others with, possibly, very little significant outside input. After all, an avalanche is a catastrophe, and it is often the result of a single pebble starting an appropriate feedback loop.


Once a catastrophe occurs, change (beneficial or harmful, or both) is pretty much set. While the system might not be stable in the new, post-catastrophic structure and further catastrophes might occur, they will have a very limited chance of pulling the system back into the previous setup. I think Watts’s topographical illustration of identity is spot on in this, with the exception that I believe this description fits far more, then just identity. (Although I’d guess it’d depend on what you choose to define as identity.)


( I have, actually, had a chance to observe a large scale catastrophic change, through an extended period of time (catastrophe + followup) with a fairly close acquaintance. Might write up some notes on that as a case study, in a separate post one day. )


Catastrophes are of special interest in changework with chronic clients. Because, in fact, what we are trying to push for, in such a case, is to actually cause a catastrophe. To move the system, in a short period of time, so far out of its default state, that return becomes harder than finding a new default state.

Catastrophic change seems to be a bit of an antithesis of how many therapeutic modalities think about change. After all, it is often assumed that therapy, especially in severe cases, must take months, or years, to be effective.

To that, I would say, it significantly depends on what we are in fact changing.


If what we are addressing is an inefficiency of a set system – like the problems with serotonin receptors – then it is confirmed that several weeks are needed for brain cells to modify the number of synaptic receptors in response to a perceived overabundance of the appropriate neurotransmitters.

However, as far as forming new connections or rewiring old connections for new purposes goes, there is ancillary evidence that it might actually be a matter of hours, or even less.

I am refering here to the rapid appropriation of sensory and motor maps of amputated limbs by surrounding neural pathways. Patients have observed perceived stimulation of their (now) phantom hands when their faces were stimulated. This happened in as short as a few hours after the amputation (possibly quicker, but one would imagine the patient is in no state to inform us properly, being either in horrid pain, or still under general anesthesia).

(Again, we have no such direct data, to my knowledge, but I’d imagine percieved stimulation of phantom feet with genital stimulation would probably occur in a similar time, perhaps slightly longer given the significant size difference between the larger facial sensory map and the smaller genital sensory map. Although there is also a – lesser,but present – size difference between the hand and foot maps, so this might have an impact too.)


Now, obviously, it is possible that different neural structures are more or less susceptible to catastrophes. Perhaps the body map, having such a strong genetic component, has a stronger potential for re-mapping than, say, personality or identity. However, since w do have examples of intense personality, identity and behavioral changes in short periods of time, we should at least permit the option of catastrophic changes in these areas might occur as effectively, as they occur in the case of body maps. After all, body maps to can be attempted to be changed via therapy (as often occurs in anorexic and overweight patients), which is normally a hard and lengthy process.


So, if we permit catastrophic changes in personality and other coaching/therapy treatment areas, two obvious questions come to mind.

The first – how to cause such catastrophes more effectively, especially in chronic patients?

The second – how to direct such catastrophes, so that they lead towards a beneficial new base-state, as opposed to a harmful one? After all, identity breakdown IS one of the possible results of therapy, although a rare and unwanted one.


I do not have the answers to these, but I will want to explore these questions in further posts. At this point I would imagine the answer to the first question be located somewhere in the mapping of the attractors of the current system. The second issue is more troublesome, because we would probably need a fairly specific map of the possible changes, in order to attempt to direct them.

Still, catastrophes have happened and will continue to happen. What we can attempt to do is to utilize them effectively.